The Changed -- Chapter 18 -- by Dee Caples
Time To Say Farewell
He drew in the dirt because there was no pencil and paper. The little ones were apt pupils and learned quickly. The thought crossed his mind now and then that what he was doing was fruitless. What did it matter if the children knew how to read if they were going to die out? Mothers gave birth to stillborns or those that were more mercifully put to peace. A fourth generation of The Changed would never be. He had to mark time somehow. Teaching was as good a way as any.
It was time to find another dwelling place so they were on the move again. The new elders felt it more prudent to not stay in the last one after hearing gunfire in the distance. He’d wandered far from their camp this morning but someone had found him. Footsteps drew near and he raised his head from his hand so no one would ask what was on his mind. In his despair he might be tempted to share it. Thoughts like this were best unspoken.
Good thing, too, for it was Danna approaching. She sat, smiling companionably, content to be silent and look at the lush country spread out before them. Finally he spoke up and pointed into the distance. “Do you see that?”
Pericles shook his head. “Look again. More than one plume. It’s a settlement.”
Danna shaded her eyes. “I believe you’re right.” She watched him long enough to make him squirm. It had been more than a year since they’d battled Dancy and she’d grown to care deeply about The Changed. Their joys and pains were hers. Together they eked out a means to survive. While she might be curious about her own down there, she was happy to be where she was. It felt safe. Her kind? What was that anymore?
Fingernails scratched lightly through the hair on his back. “You’re getting gray.”
Pericles flipped away the weed he’d been chewing and fixed her with a look she’d never seen on his face before. “I’m getting old.”
“Not that old!” she scoffed.
“I quit counting but I figure I’m almost thirty years older than you.”
“Really?” He shifted so that her hand would fall away. It felt good to have her touch him but it stirred up things that were as delicate as the wings of a butterfly and stung more ferociously than a wasp.
She wasn’t about to let him slide into moodiness. Since they’d met she’d grown used to the way he acted and looked. In fact, she could see things about him she could even call handsome. That round head, even the way his ears stuck out, was kind of cute. His nose was a little strange but those eyes! They drew her to him with their own brand of intelligence and humanity. They held something lost and longing. She wanted to answer his questions and show him he had the right to be happy, too. If she could only tell him how she felt. He was always careful to maintain his distance. So she just put her head on his shoulder.
“Do you ever smile?”
The question took him by surprise. He looked at her, deep into her eyes, at her own grin. It happened so slowly and slightly that it almost couldn’t be identified as such. But he did smile. She was so beautiful, so brave and kind. She was all that he’d known for too short a time and never would have in his life again. “I want you to gather your things,” he said.
She propped her chin on his shoulder and he found himself unable to put some space between them. “Are we going somewhere?”
“Just the two of us?” she asked in surprise, lifting her head but moving her warmth to an arm around his back.
He nodded, unable to speak for a moment, not willing to put words out there that would have to precipitate action. He forced himself to say it. “We’re going down there. To the settlement.”
“You want to go live with the humans?” she scoffed.
“Not me. You.”
She leaped up with her eyes on fire, hands on hips. “No way.” She squatted back down to his level and took his hands in hers. “What if they’re like Dancy and his bunch?”
He didn’t make her let go. Instead he smoothed his thumbs over the softness of her knuckles and twined his fingers with hers. “What if they’re not? What if they’re like the people of Dirty Town are free to be without his sort there?”
Danna felt her stomach plummet to the bottom of her and sink into the ground. She threw herself into his arms and felt them go as taut as wire. Carefully, he held her against him. Throat thick, she said, “I don’t want to leave you. I won’t.” She pulled back and felt the tears spill over and run down. Hands tried to convey with their touch what she knew he didn’t want to hear but she had to say. “I love you.”
He shook his head and looked away in anguish. “Don’t say that. You can’t mean it.” He grabbed her arms and shook her as though to bring her to her senses. Gentle, now, he thought. You could break her. And how could he hurt something so precious? He could hurt her by keeping her, letting her have her way. A life of grinding hand-to-mouth existence was all he had to offer. All he had to give was a love he’d discovered too late and couldn’t use to keep her with him.
She was sitting atop his legs, hers wrapped behind him, their vital parts almost touching, burning through their clothes. Her eyes narrowed angrily and she stared him down, unable to stop the trembling of her mouth. “Tell me you don’t love me and I’ll go away.”
If he didn’t say it soon she’d know it was a lie and then he’d never get her to leave. He scowled and pushed her away. “I don’t love you! It wasn’t part of the programming.”
She pushed herself up from her fallen position. “It isn’t something created in a lab, Pericles. I know you feel things. I’ve seen it in your eyes. You’re capable of it and I think you love me, too.” Following her heart, she stood and began removing her clothes.
Pericles had never faced anything more perilous than this girl stripping down to her bare skin. His animal self screamed for him to run from it as surely as he would a mortal enemy he couldn’t defeat. The man in him could only sit and watch as she slipped the shirt over her head and cast it carelessly away, her eyes never leaving his. Exposed breasts thrust toward him, inviting him to touch what he never had, suckle nipples like a babe at the breast. Fingers unlaced pants and pulled them down from a narrow waist he could have circled with both hands and have space left over. Hips flared out with the jut of bones that formed the bowl of her womb and he was helpless to do anything but let his gaze take in the nest of blond curls that hid her sex.
He could smell her desire. How was it possible that she could want him? The proof that she did filled his nose, excited him with what he could discover if he would only put his eager flesh inside hers. It was a mystery that wanted solving, a promise of something too sweet to deny.
Danna held out a hand to him. “I’m a woman and you’re a man. Make love to me just this once and I swear I’ll never ask it again. I’ll go down there and you won’t see me anymore if that’s what you want.”
Pericles damned himself for a weak, stupid fool. Something expanded in his chest, nearly choked the life out of him. What he wanted was no longer in doubt. He had to have this. It would haunt him at night when he lay down alone. He would remember it when he sat beneath a tree with nothing but the wind and his thoughts for company.
When he stood she was afraid he was about to walk away. His face tightened with something close to anger that made the depths of her belly thrill when she knew what it really was. The pants he wore got discarded in mere seconds and she looked at the very human penis reaching for her. He stalked toward her and when he came within touching distance his expression softened. A hand cupped her face with all the love he’d sworn he didn’t feel. “It’s what I want but first I want this.”
She put her lips against his and they felt like any other man’s would. She felt the tickle of his beard and the crisp, springy hair of his arms as he wrapped her inside them. She suspected he’d never had sex before but it was something she wouldn’t have asked. Danna was no stranger to the act but she’d not done it out of love. Her hands knew what to do. Her mouth knew where to go.
He held her to him and knelt down, laying her in the bed of grass and leaves before covering her body with his. His nose buried itself in her provocative scent and his tongue spread over every inch of her until she was writhing and moaning beneath him. Only then did he go inside her but had to pause or it would all be over. And he didn’t want it to be over. He never wanted it to be over. That part of him thrummed with a pleasure he could never have dreamed of. She was snug and wet around him like a hand. It pulled and tugged and he started moving in and out. She rocked with him, hands roaming his back, nails digging in. Words never spoken to him before came from her lips and he covered them with his own so he couldn’t answer.
He heard himself panting and moaning in a delirium of delight. Tears came from her and wet his face as it rolled against hers. Strong legs claimed his pumping hips and she rose up to meet him faster and faster with demanding speed. She sobbed and cried out, tilting her pelvis up at an angle that was so perfect it demanded a response and he could no longer deny himself. With each thrust he joined his noises to hers. Joy filled him, a completeness that burst from the inside out. For a few seconds both animal and man were one and when it was over he felt more broken than ever.
Pericles lay in her arms and legs, feeling the sloppiness between them and smelling the liquidity of what they’d done. Of all the wondering he’d ever done, nothing had even come close to the reality. This joining together was nothing short of magical and he reveled in it for an interval, wishing he could draw it out and make it last. Make it mean more than the words he’d said. How could he not want to keep this? Keep her?
But he couldn’t. She deserved to be happy. Yes, he loved her but he couldn’t say it. He knew if he ever uttered those words it would be a mistake. He raised his head and saw a look on her face that broke his heart. He’d have to tell her the truth. That look in her eye was trying to change his mind but he had to be strong. One strand of hair was stuck to her cheek by the stickiness of tears and he brushed it behind the shell of her ear. “There’s no place for you and me,” he whispered into it.
He started to rise but her arms wanted to cling. Gently, he disentangled himself but stayed near. His fingers lingered on her skin, gathering more memories to be stored away for later. “Do we have to talk about this now?” she asked, moving his hand this way and that, where she wanted it to go.
“Yes!” He got dressed then sat back down to watch as she did the same, that body disappearing forever beneath her clothes.
“Why?” Now she was angry again. They’d promised each other that it would be this one time only but he could tell she’d thought to use it to change his mind. He took her hand and pulled her down to sit. A little longer. He held that hand and told her. The Changed weren’t something nature had intended to ever be. Animals were supposed to be animals and people, people. They weren’t going to evolve into a new species. Hadn’t she seen how the ones who remained were sickening? How the last few births had gone? She nodded and forced herself to not cry. What he said made sense to her head but her heart didn’t want to hear it. All the same, when he finished talking and rose she got up to follow.
It was true, she admitted. She heard a cough as they approached the camp and Manda was lying on her rough bed near death. Staring up at the sky, her eyes broke off to follow them as they came nearer. What a wise, old thing she was. Manda knew what was happening and the smile she gave Danna was as sad as it was resigned.
The little puppy boy came bounding up to her and Danna whisked him into a hug. The bitterest weeping seized her as she squeezed the child, reluctant to put him down. Once she did he would begin to go away, to become a part of her past. She could only endure it if she told herself it had all been a dream, that she’d only imagined knowing and walking with a people that were no more.
“You’re too pure of a thing for this ugly world,” she told the child. She put the puppy boy down and went to pack up what little she called hers. It fit into a bindle she tied around her shoulder. Pericles was kneeling next to Manda, telling her what they were about to do. Manda nodded and closed her eyes. “I will not say goodbye,” her faint voice said. Danna saw the contortion of her cheeks before she turned away.
She looked around the camp when she was ready, not finding those faces. Aces, Te, Kellus. All dead. Yes, they deserved to hear her say it but she just couldn’t face the farewells. Maybe it would be best to do as Manda had and turn away. So she did and Pericles fell in behind her. “Wait!” Danna didn’t want to but she twisted to see who had called after her. It was Haja, hobbling along on her bad leg, but she didn’t give chase. She stopped next to a tree, one hand on it to steady her. The look on her face said volumes but she only raised a hand to wave. “Don’t forget us.”
Danna thought she might not be able to get the word out but she did. “Never.” And she never would. That big, ugly dog stood there, mute, watching her. Turning around, she left. Someone had told her if you looked back you were bound to return one day, whether it be to a person or a place. Danna didn’t look back.
They walked to the hill where they’d made love and neither remarked on it as they trudged down the other side. In fact, they didn’t talk for several miles. Pericles pulled her to a halt and regarded her for a long time during which her heart swelled and shrank. No, she decided, he wasn’t going to tell her he’d decided to turn back and take her with him. “Will you sing me a song?”
Danna laughed as she blinked back tears. “Of course I will.”
She thumbed through the pages of her brain for the perfect thing. One last song. Suddenly she knew which one it should be. Mama had read to her from the bible so she’d come to understand the references to death and heaven later. Back then she’d just thought they were words to walk by. Of all the songs she’d sung at the bar in Dirty Town, this wasn’t one of them. Danna began to walk again, the words rising from her mouth to go like birds through the air. She sang it for those she’d left behind and for the one she soon would.
I am a poor wayfaring stranger
While traveling through this world alone
Yet there’s no sickness, toil or danger
In that bright world to which I go.
I’m going there to see my father
I’m going there no more to roam
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home
I know dark clouds will gather round me
I know my way is rough and steep
Yet beauteous fields lie before me
Where God’s redeemed their vigils keep
I’m going there to see my mother
She said she’d meet me when I come
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home
It was almost dark when they reached the settlement. Danna began to shake, trying to keep silent, hold the misery close to her so it wouldn’t spread. It didn’t work. She felt his warmth as his arms came around her. “Don’t cry.” But she did. His voice rumbled from his chest against her back. “This is where you belong. I can smell green, growing things and meat cooking. You could be happy here.”
She took her head from beneath his chin and he moved his hand away. It gave her a little push forward. Danna studied the buildings from which people came and went. From the center of town houses spouted smoke from chimneys and a young boy drew water from the communal well. Just like in Dirty Town, a man pedled a bike with wooden wheels but this town wasn’t like that one. She heard laughter and no one was hunched over as if expecting a blow at any moment. No screaming or crying.
Danna turned around to say something to Pericles. He was already gone, faded into the thick woods without her even getting so much as one last glimpse of him. She knelt down, sobbing, then remembered her promise to go. So, go. Squaring her shoulders, she stood and went out of the forest into the town.
Pericles watched from his hiding place and groaned softly with the loss of her. He would never love her any more than he did at that moment, walking out of his life.